Thursday, February 17, 2011

Does a writer need a writers' group?

If you're a writer and ever talked to an agent or editor, one of the first questions you might have been asked is: "Do you have a writers' group (or critique group)?"

What's that about? Well, the theory goes that it's all well and good to let your friends and your family read your work. But they're your friends. Or your family. They may like to read, but they also probably like you, and want to support you, and have this hilarious idea that what 'support' means is to tell you that your work is fantastic.

In the real world, almost nobody's work is fantastic when they first drag it onto a page. Everybody's work can use a critical editor's eye. A good writer is good at casting a critical eye on her/his own work, and making changes for the better. This ability improves with practice. It is said that this ability improves exponentially in a circle of practice, that is, in a group of people who regularly read and critique each others' work. In a writers' group, people do just that, and discuss (or even argue sometimes) about conflicting ideas concerning what works and what doesn't in a dialog, a scene, a chapter, or a whole manuscript. This is a great way for writers to get better at writing.

But, you're wondering, can't I just read The Elements of Style, Writing Fiction, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, The First Five Pages, and Letters to a Young Novelist? Well, you should do that too.

But, you're wondering next, can't I just pay an editor? You can, yes. But caveat emptor. Be warned that if your editor is any good, s/he's going to charge a hefty fee. And even so, if your book is going to be a contender you're going to have to filter all that editorial advice ... it's up to you whether to take it or leave it. It would help a whole lot if you were well-equipped to make those decisions. Nathan Bransford, my favorite blogging former-agent, had some great advice in this vein in October 2009: Should You Pay Someone to Edit Your Work? Worth a read.

I went for years thinking I had no need to work with other writers. Workshops didn't interest me. I am fortunate to have many well-read friends, some of whom are writers, and over the years many of these friends read my stories and novel manuscripts, and gave me terrific, helpful, critical feedback.

It wasn't enough.

Forming or finding a writers' group

So if you're a writer, and you don't have a group ... what do you do?

What you can't do is throw any six or dozen writers together and call it an effective, worthwhile group. Some writers have a good eye for reading others' work, others don't. Some are good at articulating what can be done to improve a piece of prose, some can't quite figure out how to tell you what comes to them naturally. Some are good at talking about the fine points of craft, some are good at analyzing character or narrative arc or stylistic tics.

If you want a good writers' group, you'll need to pick your focus and balance your members carefully. And then you'll need to nurture the group along.

Many writers' groups (on-line and face-to-face) exist and seek new members. Try Google or Bing. If you search for "writers' group" you'll find lots of advice.

I got lucky myself: I got invited into an existing writers' group, one that was already on a roll. I attended the SF Writers Conference last year, and met some good people who are also good writers. They asked me to join their writers' group. I hemmed, I hawed, I e-mailed a few of the people I'd met, then I took the plunge. This turned out to be a very smart move.

Within a couple of months I'd learned enough from these writers that I was able to embark on a major overhaul of a novel I thought was finished when I met them. My manuscript is radically improved by this most recent go-round. I can't actually explain what took me so long to find an arrangement like the one I have now. Mind you, none of the members of my group had published more fiction than I have ... it's not only about publishing credits. It's about attention, care, craft, engagement.

This can happen to you if you attend writers conferences: networking goes a long way. (There are those who would say that the fact I found my group attending SFWC wasn't luck at all. It was, they might say, a corollary of the choice I made to attend the conference. With a little bit of luck, I would hasten to add.)

Alternatively, you could try books like The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide published by Writers Digest Books, and build from the advice you find there. You can search for needles in haystacks like the one maintained by The Writer magazine (actually, their search interface permits you to narrow pretty quickly, but doesn't help you pick out the online groups -- which don't depend on members' location). If you're hooked into LinkedIn you can seek group members there. eHow has an article enumerating steps to take if you want to start a writers group that holds face-to-face meetings ... it's kind of old-school, but if you supplement locally-focused on-line venues to their advice about advertising in local newspapers the advice seems reasonably sound to me.

If the first group you join (or try to form) doesn't work out after you give it a serious chance, try another.

The on-line option

My writers' group works on-line. Some of us live in California; some in the midwest; and our founder lives in France ... he just moved there from Canada, and is lobbying to hold an in-person conclave on the lovely property where he and his family now live. How cool is that?

What do we write? Well, we're not all cast from the same genre mold. If I were pressed to describe common characteristics I might put it this way: Each of us writes work that doesn't quite fit a single category. What we share is a commitment to quality. We all want our books to be compelling, but are not satisfied if they are only entertaining.

We share our work by exchanging files, and use a discussion forum format to exchange feedback. It's not the same as face-to-face, but it actually works. In some ways, it works better: we don't have the difficulty of finding times everyone can meet, and no one has to get out of their pajamas to participate. For me, it's ideal.

I'd like to tell you how our group works in detail because I think the example might be helpful to folks trying to form an on-line writers' group. I'd also like to propose a set of questions to ask and answer in the course of forming and organizing a new group, whether on-line or face-to-face.

Alas, this post is getting pretty long.

So I'll extend my Monday & Thursday blog-posting habit and continue with "How to organize an on-line writers' group" tomorrow. Stay tuned...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Craft and art: erasure and accent
Aleksandar Hemon on Narrative, Biography, Language
Drafting vs. editing

Thanks to Greg Turner for the image from his Flickr stream.

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